We find life in ruins. That may seem like an oxymoron since ruined buildings usually denote death, decay and the absence of human existence. In most cases, the only life found in such places comes in the form of plants and animals that reclaim what humans once made their own.
But life is more than breath. And in the forgotten and fading remains of wood, stone or concrete fragments, we discover another kind of life in ruins: our own.
Last time (as well as the photos here) used examples from San Juan de Dios hospital in Granada, Nicaragua and the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia to explore five reasons why ruins fascinate us. But here’s the main explanation, at least to me, as to why we’re intrigued with the broken-down and crumbling:
Ruins are beautiful. They speak to us in ways we can’t always comprehend and they tell us a deeper story.
We may find the cobwebs, debris, small animals and flora emerging from the ancient walls to be curious – even, in some cases, disturbing – but the stonework, the carvings, the details and craftsmanship of those walls? These are works of art. Works that survive because they were well-made of materials meant to last. Such work and the ruins themselves touch us and move us in the way only beauty or affliction can, for they represent elements of both.
The beauty of ruins, however, is very different than the beauty of the original buildings. Visit other temples in Cambodia or Asia or visit other hospitals in Central America. Some are lovely, but many can feel decorative. Overdone. Even (to our Western sensibilities) a bit tacky. But when time and weather have their way with these places, what’s left are the elemental forms. The aesthetics of structure and support. The colors of decay: rusts, grays and gritty pastels. In the end, what remains is the character of the place.
And so it is with us. Ruins remind us that when you strip away all our superficialities, what remains is our own character. That can be a simple wreck. A collection of fallen, broken pieces. The remnants of what we strove to be but never quite pulled off.
Or, our characters can reflect the real us. The core of who we are beyond our faded pretenses, poses and props. The depths of our true selves, something of great wonder and beauty that people marvel at. Our characters can, in a way, reflect the summary of our lives, the end result of all the shaping of time, circumstance and choice.
Thus, in the end, it might be that ruins evoke a deeper story in, from and through us. A story of great beauty. One that reminds us that beyond what we see in the present is something far greater and much richer. One we don’t always appreciate until all else is removed and we are left only with the character.
Of a place…or of a person.